An explanation of clefs: treble, bass, alto, tenor (2023)

Featured Article Sidebar, Guitar, How To, Music Theory, Strings, Teachers Resources November 16, 2013April 27, 2020 Making Music

An explanation of clefs: treble, bass, alto, tenor (1)

A friend of yours is getting married and the solo cellist she hired to play during the ceremony had to cancel at the last minute. Your friend doesn’t know any other cellists, so she asks you—a classical guitarist—to fill in. You, of course, happily agree, and she drops off the music she would like played. You start to read through the music, but your ears quickly tell you that what you’re playing can’t be right. The left side of the page catches your eye: instead of the familiar swirls of the treble clef, you see an odd looking symbol with two dots—a bass clef.

You vaguely recall a memory trick from elementary school music class that’s supposed to help you read bass clef—something about cows and grass—but that’s not getting you anywhere. The wedding is the next day and there is no time to order new music. How can you decode the mystery of bass clef? Read on!

Four different clefs are used in music today; the most common are the treble and bass clefs, and the less common are the alto and tenor clefs. Music is written in different clefs because the range of notes that exist is far greater than what can fit on one five-line staff. If music were notated in the same way for every instrument, the highest-pitched and lowest-pitched instruments would have to read an absurd number of ledger lines. Instead, each instrument uses a clef that allows most of the notes in its middle range to fall right on the staff.

An explanation of clefs: treble, bass, alto, tenor (2)Treble clef can also be called violin clef, or G clef, because the curl of the clef encircles the line where the note G falls. This clef is used for high-sounding instruments, such as violin, guitar, mandolin, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, saxophone, horn, and trumpet. The upper staff of keyboard instruments also use treble clef. The lines of the staff, from bottom to top, are E, G, B, D, F (think back to learning “Every Good Boy DeservesFudge) and the spaces are F, A, C, E.

An explanation of clefs: treble, bass, alto, tenor (3)Bass clef may also be referred to as F clef, because the note F is found on the line in between the two dots of the clef’s symbol. This clef is used for low-sounding instruments, such as bass guitar, cello, double bass, bassoon, trombone, tuba, and timpani. The bottom staff of keyboard instruments also use bass clef. The lines of the staff, from bottom to top, are G, B, D, F, A, and the spaces are A, C, E, G (the saying is “All Cows Eat Grass”).

An explanation of clefs: treble, bass, alto, tenor (4)Alto clef is often called viola clef, or sometimes C clef, since the middle line of the staff is the note C. The viola and the alto trombone are generally the only instruments that use this clef. The lines of the staff,from bottom to top are F, A, C, E, G, and the spaces are G, B, D, F.

(Video) Five Clefs Used in Music: Bass ,treble,,Alto, Tenor and Percussion Clef

An explanation of clefs: treble, bass, alto, tenor (5)Tenor clef is not seen very often; it is occasionally used to represent the upper ranges of the cello, double bass, bassoon, and trombone. Its symbol is identical to the alto clef, but is moved higher on the staff. Similarly, C is moved up one line from alto clef, making the notes on the lines D, F, A, C, E and notes in the spaces E, G, B,D.

Now you know how to get by if you find yourself in a situation where you need to read music from an unfamiliar clef. Simply determine the note names and play them in an octave that is comfortable on your instrument. It may not be the most ideal way to read music, but the show must go on!



alto clef, bass clef, learning music, music theory, notclip, tenor clef, treble clef, understanding music

An explanation of clefs: treble, bass, alto, tenor (6)

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    Nice article. In all my years of studying music I had no idea about “alto” and “tenor” clefs. And I thought I was good. Thank You. cf


    I’ve learnt a lot of new ideas concerning the alto clef and tenor clef of whose difference never existed in my thinking. Thank you.

    Very good explanation

    (Video) Clefs - Treble, bass, alto, tenor and percussion

    More helpful and precise to define which pitch you are talking about when referencing for instance a “C”. Is it C3, or C4 or?

    i was reading for 5th grade theory from the work book of Trinity college.. found it difficult to understand the tenor clef.. but you made it very simple and interesting

    Leo Eckroth – All four are Middle C.

    If the musical staff had more than five lines, it would be too difficult to read. Locating middle C between the bass and treble clef makes perfect sense. So does locating it on the middle line of the alto clef if you are only using one staff. I suppose the whole point is to avoid placing notes too far above or below the staff.

    This is amazing. I just learned about the Alto clef after my son brought home a viola. I lived in the world of treble and bass on the piano all my life.

    Why use alto and tenor clefs at all if they’re only one note value away from treble clef? Because it’s MIDDLE C, not the octave above. Thanks for your explanation; now I understand that my new double bass method isn’t just being draconian and forcing me to learn an arbitrary and cruel clef. It better represents the register, and after a few weeks I’ll probably appreciate fewer ledger lines as a result.

    I learned the treble clef lines “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and the bass clef lines “Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always” . Until I had a child who eventually became a music educator was I aware of alto and tenor clef. Give the bass clef anytime! Low Brass!

    I just joined an adult community chorale, and many of the music sheets have a treble clef with an “8” below it. You don’t mention that anywhere. I was told that’s for tenors, and I am one, but I was givien conflicting meanings of this symbol by different music teachers. Can you give an authoritative explanation?

    (Video) Music Theory - Understanding Alto & Tenor Clefs (Reading Notes/Key Signature Layout)

    Hi Michel,

    This is a great question. The treble clef with an 8 below it is also known as the vocal tenor clef. When an “8” or “8ve” is used in music it almost always refers to an adjustment needing to be made in regards to octaves (since an octave has 8 notes). The “8” in this case is used to indicate that the notes written on the page should be sung an octave lower than written. Does that make sense?

    I’m not a professional at any instrument; I have a few years of experience with the violin. I sing, and I mess around on the piano. I am not an expert, but I have a few acronyms that might be useful in remembering the note names of the different clefs.
    – Treble clef
    Elephants Go Bouncing Down Freeways
    – Bass clef
    Good Burritos Don’t Fall Apart
    All Cows Eat Grass
    – Alto clef
    Fire Animals Cross Everything Gracefully
    Good Bunnies Deserve Food
    – Tenor clef
    Eggs Go Bowling Downstairs
    By the way, thank you for helping me with the clef notes! I knew some of these acronyms before, but some were made up by me or one of my family members. I wouldn’t have been able to have those acronyms if not for this information (specifically Alto and Tenor clefs)!

    We are glad you found the article to be helpful and useful!
    These are great acronyms you have come up with here. Thank you for sharing!

    You’re welcome and thank you!

    Your article is so clear and easy to understand. I’m learning a piece on cello, where just two notes are really high – turns out they are A4 and B4 – on the tenor clef. Everything else on the bass clef. Guess who gets to be smarty-pants in their lesson tomorrow?

    the masters of music knew the clefs inside and out…it is so important to learning music.

    You know an article is good when you get great responses from the readers. Thanks for an excellent article, and for answering Michael’s question about the ‘8’ symbol. Thanks also to Anonymous for the acronyms.

    (Video) Lesson 6: Alto and tenor clefs. | Music basics | Music | Khan Academy

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